Archive for December, 2014

224th anniversary of Aztec Sun Stone’s rediscovery

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

On Wednesday, December 17th, Mexico City celebrated the 224th anniversary of the rediscovery of the Aztec Sun Stone, the basalt monolith carved under the reign of Moctezuma II just a few years before the Spanish conquest. The circular stone, 12 feet in diameter and weighing more than 24 tons, was originally painted in brilliant red, blue, yellow and white. Archaeologists believe it was placed on top of the main platform of the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan (modern-day Mexico City), perhaps initially intended to be a sacrificial altar but then erected vertically when the massive stone cracked so it was no longer the thick drum-shape of traditional altars.

It is a world-famous icon of Aztec sculpture, but there are competing theories on what the imagery carved onto the stone represents. According to the National Museum of Anthropology, at the center of the monolith is the face of the solar deity Tonatiuh inside the glyph “ollin” meaning “movement.” He holds a human heart in each hand and his tongue is the stone knife used for sacrifices. Four squares around his face contain the glyphs for the four previous cycles of creation and destruction. Concentric rings surrounding the central figure contain multiple calendar glyphs: the first ring has the glyphs for 20 of the 260 days in the Aztec calendar, the second features small boxes that may represent the 52 years of an Aztec century. You can examine the carving in glorious high resolution on Google Art Project.

After the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521, Hernán Cortés ordered all Aztec religious icons removed and replaced them with Christian ones. The Sun Stone was toppled and dumped carved side up on the Zócalo, the main square of Mexico City. A few decades later, Archbishop Alonso de Montúfar, the second Archbishop of Mexico, ordered the stone, which he considered an evil, satanic influence on the city’s residents, flipped carved side down and buried. There it remained entirely forgotten until December 17th, 1790, when it was unearthed less than two feet under the surface by workers repaving the square. They propped it upright next to the find spot.

Mexican astronomer, anthropologist, historian and writer Antonio de León y Gama documented the find. He commissioned Francisco de Agüera to make a highly accurate and detailed drawing of the Sun Stone, the first known image of it ever made. In 1792, León y Gama published Descripción histórica y cronológica de las dos piedras que con ocasión del nuevo empedrado que se esta formando en la plaza principal de México, se hallaron en ella el año de 1790 [Historical and Chronological Description of the Two Stones that were Discovered in 1790 in the Main Square of Mexico City] about the discovery of the stone and the statue of the Aztec earth goddess Coatlicue. It was León y Gama who, recognizing the calendar glyphs, interpreted the monolith as a timekeeping device, a giant sundial to mark astronomical events like solstices. His view dominated the scholarship for close to a hundred years. Even today the piece is commonly called the Aztec Calendar Stone.

It was Antonio de León y Gama who rescued the stone from further disrespect. The Viceroy of New Spain and the Church wanted to use the stone as a step leading up to the entrance of the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary, the church built in the shadow of the Templo Mayor ruins 20 years or so after Archbishop Alonso de Montúfar had ordered the Sun Stone buried for its satanism. Letting parishioners stomp their dirty shoes all over a sacred Aztec artifact would have been a satisfying symbol of the triumph of Christianity over paganism. It also would have been a conservation disaster. León y Gama persuaded Viceroy Juan Vicente de Güemes, 2nd Count of Revillagigedo, that since the stone wasn’t really a pagan idol like the statue of Coatlicue, but rather a calendar, it should be properly displayed, not trampled. The stone placed on the exterior wall of the Cathedral’s southwest tower where it became a popular attraction known as “Montezuma’s Clock.”

The Aztec Sun Stone stayed on the Cathedral until 1882 when it was moved along custom-built tracks two blocks to the new National Museum. Three years after that it moved the museum’s Gallery of Monoliths. In 1964, the Sun Stone was moved one last time, to the newly built National Museum of Anthropology. Now the museum can celebrate its own 50 year anniversary, the 50th anniversary of the Sun Stone’s final move and the 224th anniversary of the stone’s rediscovery all at the same time.

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The Year in History Blog History

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014

And so another year ends and a new one dawns. As has become customary, I shall pay Janus his due by looking back at the Year in History Blog History. Statistically speaking, it has been a rich year, with nearly 1,600,000 total pageviews. In June we passed the milestone of 5,000,000 total pageviews since stats were installed in 2009. We’ll end the year just 85,000 or so views short of the six million mark which, fair warning, I plan to celebrate with some sort of Steve Austin reference.

I was delighted to see statistical support for one of my little follies this year. Some of you mocked my love for the world’s oldest eel when I blogged about his demise at the venerable age of 155 this August, but it turns out we Åle appreciators are legion. That entry was the most viewed new post of the year with 13,582 views. (Brundage’s sex flowchart from the Medieval penitentials, a perpetual favorite since I first posted it in 2010, was the most viewed of the year with 16,831 views.) The second most viewed new entry this year was a surprise: the deciphering of the French shorthand annotations in the 1504 edition of Homer’s Odyssey printed in Venice by Aldus Manutius. People dig puzzles, man, and that wasn’t the only article about shorthand to get tons of attention this year.

Probably the biggest story of the year in terms of sheer media saturation was the excavation of the great Kasta tumulus in Amphipolis. There were so many developments in quick succession that I had to restrain myself from posting about them daily. As it is I covered the initial discovery of the mosaic, the reveal of the Persephone portion, the discovery of what may or may not be the head of one of the entrance sphinxes and lastly of the human remains. Little stories are still cropping up even though the excavation is over for now, but I’m holding back until we get some concrete news.

Most enjoyable reasearch rabbit hole award goes to the backstory of the 1908 cartoon illustrating the dire consequences of women being allowed to smoke in public establishments. I had a wonderful time digging through the period newspaper articles about the controversy that exploded at the end of 1907 over the prospect of women being allowed to smoke in the public rooms of the trendy Fifth Avenue French restaurant Café Martin. The story has everything: women’s rights, European sophisticates versus US pearl-clutchers, a deeply corrupt politician who had knocked up at least a half-dozen dance hall girls and would soon die of syphilis lecturing women about moral behavior, and best of all, a fantasy vision of a bar filled with liberated ladies doing naughty things under the shadow of a free fudge and almonds buffet.

Not as playful but perhaps even more compelling was the life story of Anne of Brittany explored on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of her death. She was so young when she had to lead men-at-arms and hurtle head-first into political gamesmanship with kings and emperors to save the independence of her homeland. The only woman to ever be queen of France twice, from the age of 14 until her death at 36, she was pregnant at least 14 times with only two daughters surviving. Between all that, she somehow she found the time to rule her duchy and introduce the art and philosophy of Renaissance humanism to France. The tomb she commissioned for her father, Duke Francis II, was the first work in the Renaissance style done in France, and since I didn’t post this in the original entry, I’m taking the opportunity now to glory in the phenomenal carving of the allegory of Courage defeating the dragon of Evil/Discord which as attacked the tower of Good/Conscience. All the sculptures on the tomb are exceptional, but I am completely obsessed with that dragon.

Probably the most enjoyable post to write was the one about how Misty the Diplodocus lead researchers to discover 55 barnacle specimens assembled, labeled and presented to a Danish colleague by Charles Darwin himself. From the teenagers who beat their dad to the money dinosaur fossils to the Darwin expert with specific knowledge of his fossil trades being in charge of finding specimens for the Natural History Museum of Denmark’s Misty-inspired exhibition, it was such a randomly fortuitous chain of events.

I also loved learning more about the Adena Mound in Chillicothe, Ohio, which at the beginning of the year was the radiocarbon dated to the first century A.D. The history of the mound is a sad one — it suffered the fate of so many of its brethren when it was busted down to nothing in 1901 so the land could be farmed — but the excavation that destroyed it also saved the small fragments of tree bark that made the dating possible now that the technology is advanced enough to work with tiny samples.

Speaking of the dire fate of Ohio earthworks, it was averted for the Hopewell Junction Group earthworks also in Chillicothe. The non-profit Arc of Appalachia was able to purchase 193 acres covering the earthworks after just eight frenetic days of fundraising. It wasn’t the only fundraising triumph this year. The Art Fund’s campaign to acquire the unparalleled artistic and industrial archive that is the Wedgwood Collection succeeded in record time, raising £2.74 million in three weeks.

One of my favorite finds of the year was the Roman wooden toilet seat unearthed at Vindolanda. Roman sites all over the former empire are lousy with stone toilet seats, but this is the first wooden one known to have survived thanks to the waterlogged soil of Northumberland. There’s an update to this story that is almost as awesome as the original. Tosca and Willoughby, makers of very upmarket custom toilet seats for the discerning and well-moneyed butt, pledged to create a special edition of their luxury Thunderbox line of wooden toilet seats and donate some of the proceeds to the Vindolanda Trust to help defray the cost of preservation.

“We are absolutely fascinated by the discovery of a perfectly-preserved ancient loo seat,” said James Williams, the Director of the company whose money will maintain the chemical conservation of the artefact.

“As our own seats are handcrafted, we admire the Roman craftsmanship which, in this case, has certainly stood the test of time.”

There is not one part of that I don’t love, and it’s a fine thematic companion to the barrels of 700-year-old human excrement excavated in Odense, Denmark.

In the fever dreams caused by excessive viewings of Antiques Roadshow category, you can’t beat the midwestern scrap metal dealer who found a lost Fabergé Imperial Eater Egg, bought it purely for its precious metal content and then refused to melt it down when everyone told him he’d overpaid. If he hadn’t been so stubborn, and if he hadn’t happened to have Googled the Vacheron clock inside the egg which led him to a 2011 article about a newly rediscovered auction photograph of the egg from 1964, this priceless historical artifact would have been converted into a few thousand dollars worth of molten metal and disappeared forever.

I also loved seeing the replica of a 24-pound bronze cannon from the Vasa, the Swedish warship that sank on its maiden voyage in 1628, shot. The smoke, the recoil, the sound, the exploding wood fragments when the ball makes contact with the replica section of the Vasa‘s hull, brings to vivid life the chaotic scariness of 17th century nautical battles. As if that weren’t neat enough, Fred Hocker, Director of the Vasa Cannon Project, popped into the comments to answer people’s questions and generally be the coolest guy in the house.

It was a great year for textiles. There was the recreation of the Iron Age woolen tunic found in a melting glacier in Norway, the altar frontal hand-embroidered by World War I soldiers as occupational therapy during their convalescence, the oldest known trousers found in China, the return of the 2,000-year-old Paracas textiles from Sweden to Peru, and the gloriously beautiful Veldman-Eecen Collection of 18th century Indian chintz garments acquired by the Peabody Essex Museum.

It was a great year for hoards, too. There was the hoard of Byzantine gold coins found in the Netherlands’ northeastern Drenthe province, the jewelry hoard hidden in Colchester to keep it safe from Boudicca’s army descending upon the city, the Dumfries Viking Hoard and its fascinating Carolingian pot stuffed with additional treasures, and the gorgeous pyramid-and-leaf late Roman gold fittings from a ceremonial robe that were confiscated from a looter in Germany. The United States got into the game in a big way this year, thanks to the discovery of the Saddle Ridge Hoard of mint-condition gold coins from the mid-to-late 1800s.

I think my favorite overall post of the year was the interview with maker of historical fonts Brian Willson of Three Island Press. He’s as generous and he is brilliant, his work is exceptional and if the New Year brings us a Nestler font, then I will consider it to have been one of the greatest on record.

Thank you once more for reading and commenting and emailing me tips to juicy history stories. Truly you are the bestest. May all your 2015s be replete with metaphoric (or literal!) gold hoards, shorthand mysteries and buffet tables groaning with fudge and almonds.

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Købke’s romantic sunset is actually a sunny day

Monday, December 29th, 2014

Conservators at the National Gallery of Denmark (SMK) have discovered that View of Lake Sortedam, an 1838 landscape by Christen Købke that was thought for decades to depict a romantic sunset reflected in the russet lake waters, is in fact a bright sunny day over blue lake waters. Two women standing on a jetty seeing off a party in the rowboat on a summer evening at sundown is a wistful, melancholic scene. Make it high noon and the romantic theme of separation is distinctly less emphatic.

The artist painted the lake, which was then outside the old city of Copenhagen in a liminal suburb between the city and the rural country, with the express goal of getting it into the yearly exhibit of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. Rumor had it the Danish King was interested in acquiring the painting for the Royal Picture Gallery (now absorbed into the National Gallery of Denmark), and indeed, after the landscape was exhibited at the Royal Academy show in 1839, it was purchased by the monarch. View of Lake Sortedam was the first painting by Christen Købke in the Royal Picture Gallery.

That proved to be the pinnacle of his career during his lifetime. At the end of 1838, flush with a travel stipend from the Royal Academy, he traveled to Italy. Upon his return in 1840, he abandoned the romantic nationalism of his earlier work in favor of scenes based on sketches from his travels. These were not well received. He submitted one of those Italian landscapes in his application to become of a member of the Academy in 1846 and was rejected. Two years later he died of pneumonia at the age of just 37.

The importance of View of Lake Sortedam, in terms of subject matter, execution and period, was not recognized for more than a century after his death. In 1841 the King had the painting moved to his private apartment in Christiansborg Castle where it remained for 25 years. It only went on public view in 1864 when it was returned to the Royal Picture Gallery. When the National Gallery was established in 1896, Lake Sortedam moved there with the rest of the Royal Collection of Paintings, but as recently as the 1970s it was hanging above a door, not a location commensurate with its significance.

In the 1980s, art historians began to recognize the piece was one of Christen Købke’s most important paintings and it took a prominent place in exhibition of the artist’s work at home and abroad. It is now considered one of the signature Danish Golden Age paintings in the collection.

With little attention paid to it for a century and a half after it was painted, View of Lake Sortedam changed without people noticing it. The contrast between the pale blue of the sky and the red of the lake had caused some art historians to wonder if it was a natural phenomenon — the sun setting out of frame to the right could make the lake red while the sky was still light — or if perhaps the color had shifted over time.

Conservators at the SMK took small samples of paint from the lake and sky both in areas where they had been protected from the sun and exposed to it. The samples were analyzed using X-ray fluorescence and Raman spectroscopy to identify the chemical components of the paints Købke used.

The colours have changed due to a chemical reaction in the blue pigment, which is known as Prussian blue. The colour changes have been exacerbated by 176 years of exposure to light.

The sky has become paler and lighter. And the lake, which was painted using a mixture of red, blue, and white pigments, was originally a bluish grey. Now, however, it has taken on a reddish, purplish hue. The frame in which the work is set has protected the original colours out at the very edge – and this difference in colour piqued the conservator’s curiosity.

Kasper Monrad, senior researcher at the SMK, states that this new discovery completely changes how we should look at this painting. Up until this point the work was believed to be a romantic sunset scene. In the mid-1830s Købke painted many romantic artworks – and this work has been regarded as part of that group. In light of the new knowledge – that the scene actually shows a bright summer’s day – the work must be regarded as far less romantic in scope.

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Charlottenburg Palace’s New Wing reopens after restoration

Sunday, December 28th, 2014

Charlottenburg Palace, home of King Frederick the Great’s first court after he ascended the throne in 1740, reopened on December 26th after two years of renovations. It started out as a small private retreat in Lietzow, a village a mile or so west of Berlin, commissioned in 1695 by Electress Sophie Charlotte, sister of British King George I and wife of Elector Frederick III of Brandenburg. In 1701, Frederick would declare himself “King Frederick I in Prussia” (the “in” was to assure the Holy Roman Emperor that his aspirations to kingship would not bleed across the boundaries of the empire into his role as Prince-elector of Brandenburg).

Once her husband’s promotion made her a queen, Sophie Charlotte hired Swedish builder Johann Friedrich Eosander to expand her little country retreat into a Baroque palace modeled after Louis XIV’s Versailles. There she collected poets, painters, scholars, theologians and musicians around her, creating a vibrant cultural community at her Lietzow court. She died unexpectedly of pneumonia in 1705. She was just 36 years old. In her honor, Frederick renamed the palace and the town that grew up around it Charlottenburg.

Charlottenburg Palace was the original home of the fabled Amber Room. It was designed by Andreas Schlüter, the German baroque sculptor and architect who helped complete the palace after Johann Arnold Nering died in 1695, and built by Danish amber master craftsman Gottfried Wolfram. Frederick I commissioned it in 1701 in the afterglow of his coronation in Königsberg, a Baltic port city that had been famous for its amber artistry since the Middle Ages. Königsberg amber of every shade was pieced together into mosaic panels that were installed on the walls of a small game parlour in Charlottenburg Palace. Construction took a decade, from 1701 to 1711.

Tsar Peter the Great remarked on the room’s beauty during a visit to the palace. Recalling the tsar’s appreciation, in 1716 King Frederick William I of Prussia gave the room to Peter as a diplomatic gift marking Brandenburg-Prussia’s 1715 alliance with Russia against Sweden in the Great Northern War. He received “55 very tall Russian soldiers” in return. Frederick William shared little of his parents’ interest in the arts; expanding Prussia’s military was his thing, which is why he was more than willing to strip the amber off the walls to seal a military alliance and secure an elite cadre of leggy troops.

Charlottenburg, palace and town, were neglected under Frederick William’s reign. He stopped all building projects and even tried to revoke the town’s charter, although he did use the palace to receive state visitors and host grand family affairs. It wasn’t until his son Frederick II of Prussia, later dubbed Frederick the Great, came to the throne in 1740 that Charlottenburg was returned to its former prominence. Construction resumed and Frederick commissioned the Superintendent of all the Royal Palaces, Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff, to build a new east wing following Eosander’s design from four decades before.

The New Wing was lavishly appointed in rococo style. Rooms included the First and Second apartments of the King, the White Hall, the Banqueting Hall, the Golden Gallery and the Throne Room. Frederick housed his extensive collection of French paintings in the palace and later kings added a collection of marble and plaster sculptures that are excellent illustrations of the development of Berlin sculpture heavily influenced by classical Greece and Rome.

The palace was severely damaged by Allied bombing raids in 1943 and 1945. After the war it was rebuilt, unlike many other war-damaged palaces, making it the largest surviving Hohenzollern residence in Berlin. There were additional renovations in the 1950s and 60s, but the systems installed then are now outdated, inefficient and not in compliance with energy consumption, accessibility and fire safety regulations. In 2008, a major program of refurbishment began to address all the issues of Charlottenburg Palace in a comprehensive manner. The program has been divided into 10 parts so that visitors can continue to enjoy much of the palace even as work makes some areas inaccessible.

It’s the restoration of the New Wing that has just ended and while some of the biggest upgrades are unseen — new insulation between roof and ceiling, new climate control systems for the White Hall and Golden Gallery, a basement full of new fire monitoring technology — the entire envelope of the building has been carefully restored, from plaster and masonry elements of the façade to the windows, doors, wrought iron railings, external paint and roof tiles. With restoration complete, the sculpture and French painting collections are again on display in the newly reopened wing.

The two phases of the New Wing restoration cost €4.5 million while the entire project is expected to cost €14.3 million and will be completed in 2017.

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Artifacts from Scotland Yard’s Black Museum to go on public display

Saturday, December 27th, 2014

In 1869 the passage of the Prisoners Property Act had made it legal for the police to use the property of prisoners for instructional purposes, so when the Central Prisoners Property Store was created at London’s Metropolitan Police headquarters in April of 1874, one Inspector Neame began to put together a small collection of objects to train recruits on the detection of burglary using the tools of the burglar’s trade. From that kernel the collection grew over the course of a year into a permanent museum of evidence from a range of crimes housed in the Met’s headquarters at 4 Whitehall Place whose back entrance, No. 1 Great Scotland Yard, became a metonym for the force itself.

For the first two years of its existence there are no records of the museum having any special visitors. It performed an educational function training police and Inspector Neame made certain it stuck to its purview. When a reporter from The Observer newspaper asked to be granted access to the museum, Neame refused spurring the reporter to print an article dubbing it “the Black Museum.” The first officially recorded visitors were police bigwigs in October of 1877. After that, the museum’s visitors book records a parade of celebrities including Gilbert and Sullivan, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Harry Houdini, the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII), Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, all keen to take a gander at the first museum dedicated to the tools of crime and its perpetrators.

As Scotland Yard (figurative) moved from Scotland Yard (literal), first to the other end of Whitehall Place in 1890 and then to Victoria Street in 1967, the museum moved with it. The current iteration dates to 1981 and is on the first floor of New Scotland Yard on Victoria Street. It has two rooms. The first is a replica of the original 1875 museum in Whitehall and contains weapons used to kill or cause serious injury in London (walking swords were very popular), objects from some of the Yard’s most notorious 19th century cases — Jack the Ripper’s “From Hell” and “Dear Boss” letters, Charles Peace’s burglary kit/violin case — full-head death masks of convicts hanged at Newgate Prison that were used in the Victorian era for phrenological study of their criminal skull bumps, hangman’s nooses labelled with the name of the person who swung from them until dead.

The second room covers 20th century crimes and has display cabinets dedicated to Famous Murders, Notorious Poisoners, Murder of Police Officers, Royalty, Bank Robberies, Espionage, Sieges, Hostages and Hijacking. Dennis Nilsen, serial killer of at least 12 boys and young men, is eerily represented by the small white stove and stock pot he used to boil the flesh off the bones of his victims before disposing of them. There’s the oil drum John George Haigh used to dissolve his six victims in concentrated sulfuric acid and the gallstone that survived the acid bath to help identify the victim. The museum has the ricin pellet used to assassinate Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov and a replica of the umbrella used to fire the pellet into him as he waited at a bus stop on Waterloo Bridge on September 7th, 1978.

The museum’s macabre displays and exclusivity have inspired documentaries, a radio show hosted by Orson Welles and the 1959 horror classic Horrors of the Black Museum (in HypnoVista!) whose producer and writer, Herman Cohen, finagled a pass to visit the Black Museum via an inspector friend. It’s still part of the Met’s Crime Academy, mainly used today as a lecture theater, and you still have to make an appointment to see its collection of 20,000 objects. Appointments are very hard to come by; even serving police officers have to book a date.

Every once in a while there has been talk of the museum opening to the public to raise money for the police in this age of budget cuts, but nothing’s ever come of it. Now it seems something might. The Mayor’s Office and the Metropolitan Police are negotiating with the Museum of London to put some of the Black Museum’s artifacts on public display.

Stephen Greenhalgh, deputy mayor for policing and crime, confirmed the meetings with the museum “about how the fantastic story of the Met Police can be told in their museum,” adding the talks were ongoing and they were looking for sponsorship.

Despite anticipated interest, few exhibitions make money and no decision has yet been made whether visitors will be charged to see the planned exhibition. Curators are currently visiting the historical sites to identify the items they want to display. Officials will then discuss the ethical considerations of putting them on show.

The ethnical considerations primarily being the impact on the families of the victims (or of the criminals, for that matter). I wager they’ll stick to the historical crimes, the developement of modern policing, etc., things that are distant enough not to be horrific reminders to anyone connected with the many tragedies on display.

While the parties sort out the details, you can virtually experience a visit to the Black Museum of yore, courtesy of Hargrave L. Adam’s 1914 book Police Work from Within. (Scroll back to chapter two if you want to enjoy Adam’s extra-special thoughts on how the “education” and “emancipation” of women, scare quotes original, inevitably lead to criminality and death. Sneak preview: the ladies ruined America.)

Also, the full 1954 The Black Museum radio series is available at the Internet Archive. It’s rather fabulous, replete with classic radio dramatic music and re-enactments of the crimes. Each episode covers one particular artifact and tells its story. I’m embedding the playlist below because I can.

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Sailor’s coat from USS Monitor ready for display

Friday, December 26th, 2014

After more than a dozen years, a sailor’s coat that was recovered from the gun turret of the Civil War ironclad warship USS Monitor is about to go on public display. Conserving this compelling artifact was an incredibly hard task, starting with the act of removing it from the ship. The 150-ton revolving gun turret, a revolutionary innovation that made a strong impression with its two massive Dahlgren artillery guns manned by 14 sailors but that was problematic in practice, was raised from the protected wreck site on August 5th, 2002. It was found inverted as it had flipped upside-down when the ship capsized and the skeletal remains of two crewmen were buried under coal, assorted debris and the Dahlgren guns.

Amidst that debris was a wet mass of fabric wrapped around a group of gun tools including a rammer and a worm (a device used to clean unspent powder from the barrel). It was heavily concreted, part of a hardened mass of iron corrosion salts, marine life and sediment that formed over the 141 years the wreck spent under 220 feet of salt water. The concretion had grown into the woven fiber of fabric, and removing the textile from so firm an embrace required painstakingly precise use of hand and pneumatic chisels. It took days of work just to dislodge it.

That was just the beginning. We have very few textiles recovered from shipwrecks as they tend to decay quickly in the ocean water, so there isn’t exactly a manual of how to go about preserving a Civil War-era wool coat pried out of the jaws of an iron-clad gun turret. Conservators next placed it in a long, leisurely fresh water bath to slowly leach the ocean minerals out of the fabric. It would take many, many more baths over the next decade plus. In between soakings, conservators worked on cleaning the concretions still on the surface and interior of the coat using ultrasonic dental scalers. Then they worked on removing the rust stains.

They found that although the very fine merino-type wool was still in surprisingly pliable condition, the cotton threads that had stitched the sections together were long gone. Add to that the stress from the wreck and ocean living and the garment had come apart into 180 pieces. An estimated 85-90% of it had survived but far from intact, and there was no chance it could be completely stitched back together because the fabric was just too fragile.

Textile conservators Colleen Callahan and Newbold Richardson reached out to the museum and conservation community to see if anybody could recognize the garment from the pieces. Karen France, Chief Curator of the Navy Museum, identified it as a double-breasted sack jacket known as a “pilot’s jacket.” The Monitor‘s may be the only one of its kind to have survived. It was privately made and then modified for military use. Black rubber buttons marked “U.S.N” over two stars and an anchor that had come off when the cotton string fixing them to the coat rotted away, were found next to the coat.

Callahan and Richardson worked hard to piece together some of the 180 fragments so that they could be mounted on archival backing and arranged for display in a way that made it look like a proper coat even if still in pieces.

Following a trail of evidence left by residual stains, stitching holes and the weave of the fabric, Richardson reassembled the front and back panels of the coat, while Callahan worked on the sleeves.

“It was like a jigsaw puzzle,” Callahan says, “and even after all our work we could not find a place for every piece.”

Now fully laid out on their protective mounts, the sections of the coat look much as they might have before being assembled by their original maker.

Six long-separated black rubber buttons bearing the letter “U.S.N.”and an anchor have been reunited with the fabric, fastened down through hidden magnets.

Part of an iron handle from a gunnery tool remains embedded in the cloth, too, left to preserve both the fragile weave and a dramatic part of the Monitor’s story.

“What better way to tell the story of the ship’s sinking — and to put people back in that exact moment of time — than a coat that was discarded by someone trying to escape the turret,” Hoffman says.

Conservators have freeze-dried the coat pieces to remove the last water still in the textile from the many baths and now they are ready for display at the USS Monitor Center.

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16th c. Faith stolen by priest found after 70 years

Thursday, December 25th, 2014

The Tutela Patrimonio Culturale unit of the Carabinieri, a division of Italy’s national police squad dedicated to investigating stolen art and antiquities, has found a 16th century painting by Alessandro Bonvicino, better known as Moretto da Brescia, that disappeared from a church 60 years ago. It was discovered in Brescia, in the home of a businessman who had owned it for years without knowing its shady history.

Faith, one of six known paintings Moretto made depicting the allegorical figure of Faith holding the Holy Chalice, was removed from the small parish church of Santa Maria in Valverde in the community of Padernello near Brescia in 1944. It was an inside job: the thief was the parish priest, don Staurenghi. He had noble (by his standards) motives for running what proved to be a very effective, long-lasting scam. The church needed money to build an oratory, so he took it upon himself to secure funding by selling the church’s Renaissance gem to an old friend from his hometown of Verolanuova who happened to be the town magistrate.

To ensure their backdoor shenanigans weren’t found out, the magistrate hired painter and restorer Giambattista Bertelli (who not coincidentally was also from Verolanuova) to make a copy of the painting to hang in the church. He made no bones about the nature of the gig. Bertelli was explicitly told that he had to do a really good job because his work was going to be passed off as Moretto’s in the parish church and it was imperative that nobody notice the switcheroo. From October 19th until October 28th of 1944, Bertelli had the original in his studio (he would decades later note that it’s much easier to forge a painting when you have the original in your workspace) while he painted the copy on a 500-year-old canvas he’d sourced specifically for the job in Milan.

His copy of course included a later modification of Moretto’s design overpainting the Host with the three nails of the crucifixion. That iconographic alteration was the distinguishing feature of the Padernello version. While the apocryphal Faith deceived the faithful in church, in 1969 the original was restored to Moretto’s original image of the Eucharist. I’ll give you one guess who the restorer was. If you guessed Giambattista Bertelli, congratulations. Truly you have a dizzying intellect. Or you just figured out that to run a con without a false step for decades, you’ve got to dance with them that brung you. Over time the copy disappeared too and the fact that the church had ever had one of Moretto’s Faith paintings faded from memory.

The first clue to unlock the mystery was found in 1998, 54 years after the theft, in the Castle of Padernello. A group of volunteers dedicated to the conservation of the castle were cleaning up a pile of trash in an area that had been inhabited by the family of the Counts Salvadego until the 60s when they came across a “santino” (a card with holy imagery, often of a saint, that was traditionally printed to hand out on the more important days of the liturgical calendar) bearing a picture of Faith. It was labelled “Faith, parish of Padernello.” This was evidence that one of the six Moretto Faith paintings had once hung in the parish church.

Historian Gian Mario Andrico set to researching the whereabouts of the original. He found that the santino card had been printed by don Staurenghi for Easter of 1945, months after the copy was in place with no one the wiser (I’m rather in awe of his shamelessness). A few of the old timers remembered that the painting had once hung in the chapel with the baptismal font. Then Andrico tracked down Giambattista Bertelli. Proud of his meticulously maintained records documenting his involvement in this fraud (and since I’d wager his co-conspirators were dead and buried by then), Bertelli cheerfully spilled the beans.

In 2008, the Castle hosted an exhibition entitled Moretto, Faith, The Return that told the story of the purloined painting and displayed another version of it from a private collection. The Carabinieri used the catalogue from this exhibition as the starting point for an official investigation this year. It only took them a few months to locate the long-lost work along with a black-and-white photograph of it from the late 1960s. The magistrate had sold it to an antiques dealer who in turn sold it to the businessman in Brescia.

The art squad searched the church and found an altarpiece painting on the theme of the Sacred Heart that when viewed against the light showed anomalous elements. To ensure they had located the Padernello Faith instead of another version by the master or a copy, the police took the sequestered Faith, the black-and-white photograph and the altarpiece an to the laboratory of the Physics department of the State University of Milan for analysis. Infrared reflectography confirmed that the photograph was of the painting found in the apartment with it and that it was Moretto’s original. X-ray imaging found that the altarpiece had painted over a large cross that matched the one held by the allegorical Faith. Thus the fate of Bertelli’s copy was revealed.

The Carabinieri transferred legal custody of Faith to a representative of the parish but it’s not hanging in the church. Right now it’s in the Diocesan Museum of Brescia. I suspect this will be the long-term home for it, even though the church officially owns it again at long last.

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Earliest known piece of polyphonic music found

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014

The earliest known piece of polyphonic music — choral music written for more than one part — has been discovered in a manuscript at the British Library. It was found by Cambridge doctoral student Giovanni Varelli who was looking through the British Library’s manuscript collections for medieval musical notations. On the last page of Harley 3019, a four-part composite manuscript written in northwest Germany in the early 10th century, Varelli found an inscription that he recognized as Paleofrankish notation, a style that predates the invention of the stave and of which few manuscripts have survived.

Written on the blank space underneath the conclusion of the hagiography of the late 4th century Saint Maternianus, 6th Bishop of Reims, the inscription consists of two short antiphons (responsory chants): one antiphon honoring St. Boniface martyr and one Rex caelestium terrestrium, praising God as king of heaven and earth. Above the four lines of the antiphons are a series of symbols, vertical lines topped with horizontal dashes with circles on the bottom. An expert in early music notation, Varelli realized that the symbols represented the two melodies of the first chant. The dashes are the main melody of the chant; the circles are a second lower melody to accompany the first. Their placement along the vertical lines indicates the pitch.

A chant with a second melody either above or below it in pitch is known as an organum, an early form of polyphonic music. Although two- and three-part polyphony is discussed in theoretical treatises on musical theory in the 9th and 10th century, this manuscript is the earliest known instance of polyphony as part of a performance tradition rather than something explored in theory. Before this discovery, the earliest known organa were collected in a manuscript called the Winchester Troper, written around the year 1000.

As well as its age, the piece is also significant because it deviates from the convention laid out in treatises at the time. This suggests that even at this embryonic stage, composers were experimenting with form and breaking the rules of polyphony almost at the same time as they were being written.

“What’s interesting here is that we are looking at the birth of polyphonic music and we are not seeing what we expected,” Varelli said.

“Typically, polyphonic music is seen as having developed from a set of fixed rules and almost mechanical practice. This changes how we understand that development precisely because whoever wrote it was breaking those rules. It shows that music at this time was in a state of flux and development, the conventions were less rules to be followed, than a starting point from which one might explore new compositional paths.”

The manuscript is part of the Harley Collection, the library of Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, and his son, Edward Harley. 2nd Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, which was rapidly assembled from firesales abroad and in London in the first half of the 18th century. Edward’s widow and daughter sold the entire library — more than 7,000 manuscripts, 14,000 charters and 500 rolls — to the nation for £10,000, a steal even then. The acquistion required an act of Parliament, namely the British Museum Act of 1753, the same act that paid Sir Hans Sloane’s heirs £20,000 for his collection of 71,000 objects consisting of books, manuscripts and natural history specimens, antiquities, coins, prints, drawings and ethnographic material to make them the kernel of the country’s first public museum.

Harley 3019 made no particular impression on the curators of the newly minted British Museum. The weird writing at the end of the manuscipt was so insignificant to them, in fact, that they slapped the “Museum Britannicum” stamp right on top of it. (The British Library didn’t split off from the British Museum until 1973.)

Varelli has transcribed the 10th century piece into modern notation and here are Quintin Beer and John Clapham, music undergraduates from his college — St. John’s — performing the Sancte Bonifati martyr.

[youtube=http://youtu.be/F5vqAU_EqG4&w=430]

You can read more about the organum, the notation and the early history of polyphony in Giovanni Varelli’s fascinating paper on the find. To say I know nothing about music theory is a vast understatement, but I was actually able to follow it, much to my amazement. If you’re at all musically inclined, or even just interested in medieval scholarship, it’s very much worth a read.

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US Swedish-language newspapers digitized

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014

When 1.3 million Swedes emigrated to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were supported by the communities their predecessors had established. Sweden had a 90% literacy rate in 1850, one of the highest in the world, so a larger than usual proportion of the farmers and labourers who sought out a new life in the prairies and cities of the Midwest could read and write. As a result, more than 600 Swedish-language newspapers were established in the United States, second only in number to the German-language press. Initially it was religious newsletters tied to a particular church or denomination that gained a foothold in the immigrant communities, but after the Civil War the Swedish secular press flourished. These newspapers were vital sources of news from the motherland and around the world, information on how to acclimate to their new country (recipes for unfamiliar foods, English language lessons, tackling political issues, etc.).

Most of the Swedish papers are now available only in libraries, historical societies and institutions of higher learning, either in microfilm/microfiche format or in large bound volumes of paper issues. Come next year, that will change. The National Swedish Library in Stockholm, the American Swedish Institute, the Minnesota Historical Society, and the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center at Augustana College in Illinois are working together to digitize every issue of the Swedish-language press they can find.

The project began in 2008 with a discussion between people from the American Swedish Institute, the Minnesota Historical Society and Augustana College on how to make some of these important primary sources more widely available. They reached out to the National Swedish Library and the project took off. (Relevant side-note: The American Swedish Institute is housed in a beautiful French chateau-style 1903 mansion in downtown Minneapolis that once belonged to Swan Turnblad, owner and publisher of the Swedish-language weekly Svenska Amerikanska Posten, peak circulation 40,000. After his wife died in 1929, Turnblad donated the mansion, the Posten and the Posten‘s office building to the American Institute for Swedish Art, Literature and Science, today known as the American Swedish Institute. The paper went out of business in 1940.)

The Minnesota Historical Society has been in the business of digitizing newspapers for nearly a decade, said Jennifer Jones, director of library and collections. Its digitized newspaper collection includes such defunct papers as the St. Paul Globe and Minneapolis Journal, and African-American and Ojibwe-language publications. Collecting and preserving newspapers is part of the society’s mission, mandated by state law requiring all newspapers that publish public notices to archive their publications.

The Royal Swedish Library has completed the digitization of about two dozen Swedish-American newspapers, Jones said. The national library has collected virtually everything printed in the Swedish language since 1661, and had original copies, which are superior to drawing from microfilm in the digitizing process.

The Historical Society, Jones said, is now taking the lead on the final phase of the project: making those images easily accessible.

“Since we have all the background in making that successful, we can build on that,” Jones said. “The real challenge for us is trying to find a way to make something written in Swedish usable for people in the United States.”

That is a challenge since online translators are sketchy at best. The idea is to make these invaluable resources on the history and developement of Swedish immigrant communities in the United States accessible to everyone, so they’re working on a solution that will provide more accurate English translations of the papers.

After six years of work, the digitization project is almost done. The plan is to launch the database next year. At first it will be made available to genealogists, researchers, people of Swedish descent looking for information about their families. In 2016, it will be opened to the general public, hopefully with the translation issues resolved.

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17th c. mourning ring declared treasure

Monday, December 22nd, 2014


A mourning ring discovered by a metal detectorist in a field in Pennard, Swansea, Wales, was officially declared treasure by a Swansea Coroners Court on Monday. According to the terms of the 1996 Treasure Act, any artifact that is at least 10% precious metal by weight and at least 300 years old is treasure and thus property of the Crown. The ring is 81% gold and 9% silver, and although experts were unable to give it a precise date, the decoration strongly suggests it’s from the 17th century. The outside of the ring in engraved with a cross-hatch or trellis pattern inlaid with black enamel. The inside is inscribed “prepared bee to follow me,” a common expression in 17th century mourning jewelry. The double-e spelling of “bee” is characteristic of the second half of the 1600s.

The finder is 71-year-old Ron Pitman who unearthed the ring in October of 2010 in a field used to grow corn. All the farming activity on the field left the ring just five inches below the surface. Now that the piece has been declared treasure, Pitman and the landowners (the Layton family) will split a finder’s fee in the amount of its market value as determined by a committee of experts at the National Museum in Cardiff. A local museum will be given the first opportunity to pay the fee and keep the ring. The Swansea Museum has already expressed interest.

The late 17th century saw a great boom in mourning jewelry thanks to the Great Plague of London (1665-6). Indeed, one of the rings experts used as a comparison in their assessment because of its nearly identical inscription — “Prepared bee to followe me” — dates to 1667. It would see a whole new surge in popularity 1861, inspired by Queen Victoria’s perpetual mourning for her husband Prince Albert. In the 19th century mourning jewelry would expand from the slender blackened rings of the 1600s to a wide variety of pieces — brooches, lockets, pendants, miniatures, rings with glass or gemstone windows in which a lock of hair of the deceased could be kept and much more.

If you’re at all interested in the history of mourning jewelry and art, run, don’t walk, to Hayden Peters’ exceptional blog The Art of Mourning. He’s a jewelry historian with an extensive collection of mourning pieces that he writes about, using the jewels and art as a prism through which to explore personal and societal approaches to loss and grief. His blog is a consistently fascinating, touching and beautiful read. Phenomenal pictures, too.

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